Four months ago, Johnny Rutherford bounced on his head at Phoenix, thrown upside down at 200 miles per hour by his Indy car. Buddy Parrott then was a humbled second-string mechanic after two years as a crew chief star in stock car racing. And somewhere in the Washington Hospital Center, a young doctor named Ron Benfield studied rheumatology or microbiology or something-ology.
Now these men are the hot new team in big-time stock car racing. Come Sunday's $800,000 Daytona 500, Rutherford will start from the 35th spot in the 40-car field. Though doing 189.438 mph in Monday's pole-qualifying runs, the 20th best speed, Rutherford starts back in the pack because he scraped a wall and didn't finish in Thursday's 125-mile qualifying race.
No one give Rutherford much of a chance to win stock car racing's most prestigious race. He hasn't driven against the good ol' boys since 1977, and he hasn't won a stock car race since the 100-mile qualifier of 1963. But it figures to be only a matter of time. Three times winner of the Indianapolis 500, in 1974, '76 and '80, Rutherford, 42, is a racing giant with career earnings of $2.8 million.
A pilot by avocation, a racer by soul, Rutherford long has wanted to make it in stock car racing. Because of his Indianapolis-car commitments, the best he ever did was four races in a year. Those were all second-car rides, meaning he was hired to drive a team's second-best car with the second-best crew.
"I love stock cars," he told a kid at the Atlanta International Raceway two years ago. "But I won't drive one again unless it's the first car."
The kid, Ron Benfield, filed away Rutherford's words.
For a long time, he had this idea.
He would go racing.
At 13, the son of a hardware store owner in New Bern, N.C., Benfield first went to a dirt-track race. By the sound, by the smells, by the speed, he was quickly hooked. He built a couple of hot rods, he drove a couple of races, he listened to the races on radio, watched them on television, went to Rockingham and Charlotte and Atlanta.
"I knew one day I'd get into racing," Benfield said. "I could feel the itch."
Well, any kid in love with racing first wants to be a driver. They sing songs about David Pearson, they name state parks for Richard Petty, they elect Cale Yarborough to political office. Charlie Benfield, Ron's father, put up the money for some hot-rod parts, but he maintained a certain coolness to the possibility his son would go hurtling in circles at 200 mph.
"I shouldn't say my father thwarted me at every turn," Benfield says today.
"But when I built the hot rods -- while he helped me with parts -- I didn't get any positive reinforcement from him. He was more conservative."
Like a lot of Carolina kids, Benfield migrated from home to the Charlotte area. Instead of catching on with one of the hundred stock car racing teams in that neighborhood, Benfield went to Davidson College. Following medical school, he did his internship at the Washington Hospital Center, with an occasional trip back to the South for a stock car fix.
That's how he met Johnny Rutherford at Atlonta. The racer and the kid doctor shared an idea: They wanted to take on the big-timers at a big-time level. "If you can put together a deal, I'm available," Rutherford said, and Benfield said, "I will."
That was 1979. Ron Benfield was 23. Interns do well to stay awake, so demanding is their discipline, let along chase a dream. But Benfield started chasing.
He knew enough about how a big-time team operates, but he knew nothing about getting the big money it takes to keep a team going for a season at the level a Johnny Rutherford demands. With his own savings and with some money from family investments, Benfield had a good start at it but was still a far piece from the $500,000 a year necessary to do it right.
"So I polished up on that phase of the operation," Benfield said today. "I was talking to sponsors for the last 1 1/2 years. I presented my idea as an alternative to advertising. I showed the potential sponsors the Nielsen ratings for racing on TV, the radio ratings, the typical newspaper coverage, the type of people stock car racing appeals to."
Last March, Benfield heard Buddy Parrott might be available. Then crew chief for Darrell Waltrip, who won 21 races in 88 tries with Parrott in charge, Parrott was involved in controversy with the car owners. Even though Benfield still had no sponsor for his dream, he knew he could have Rutherford. If he could get a top crew chief such as Parrott, Benfield figured a sponsor would come running.
Parrott declined. He said things were working better. Benfield said, "If anything changes, remember me."
By June, Parrott was off the Waltrip team, then working as a chassis man and second-car chief for another outfit.
In November, Rutherford survived a horrifying accident in his Indy car, bouncing along the Phoenix asphalt on his helmet.
Later that month, Benfield struck gold.
Gold in the form of chewing tobacco.
The Levi Garrett Chewing Tobacco Co. agreed to sponsor the Benfield Racing Organization in 14 races with Johnny Rutherford as driver and Buddy Parrott as crew chief.
"We're flat out and going for it," said Rutherford, who will work the 14 stock car races around his Indy-car schedule. "This is the chance of a lifetime.Ron has done everything right. We've got a good sponsor, a good car, and outstanding personnel."
"This is not a one-shot deal," Benfield said. "We want to stay in stock car racing for a long time. We know the first two or three years will be disastrous in terms of getting any of our investment money back. But we are in for the long run. I love stock car racing too much to do it any other way."